Friday, January 18, 2019

Half Nelson

Half Nelson; drama, USA, 2006; D: Ryan Fleck, S: Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie, Monique Gabriela Curnen

Dan is a history teacher at a high school. He takes up a lot of effort to present the teaching at a more unusual level, presenting it as a clash of two worldviews. One day, while taking cocaine at the locker room, he is found by his 13-year old student, Drey, who helps him recover. Drey becomes his friend. Dan tries to persuade Drey to stay away from Frank, a local drug dealer. Drey tells him a joke, and Dan uses it to impress a teacher, Isabel, who came to his apartment for dinner. Even though they have sex, the next morning, Dan is uninterested in talking to Isabel. When Drey agrees to sell Frank's drugs, she finds out one of the buyers is Dan. Soon, a new history teacher is brought for replacement. Drey arrives at Dan's apartment and helps him shave.

"Half Nelson" seems to be an antithesis to "The Simpsons" classic episode "Lisa's Substitute": while in that episode we have Sam Etic, a funny, creative teacher with wisdom, who bonds with Lisa in a genuine way, in this film, we have Dan, a teacher who is a slob, an aimless mess who doesn't know where he is going or what he is doing, whereas his bond with a 13-year old student, Drey, never quite manages to develop that much charm or compassion to begin with. And this pretty much sums up the problem of the entire film. Filmed with a shaky, hand-held camera, "Half Nelson" seems as if the whole strategy of the story wasn't that well planned out beforehand: the storyline seems to be invented or improvised on the spot, with meagre events that never connect into a purposeful whole, since many ideas lack a point later on. It is, for instance, unimaginable that a person of Dan's intellect would make such a blunder to take cocaine at the school's public locker room, instead of the safety of his own apartment. Some neat scenes appear, such as when an angry Dan throws and hits a referee with a baseball, or when he confronts Frank ("I hate to be that person, but you should stay away from Drey!"), yet, as said, there is never a genuine, believable build-up of a relation between him and Drey. And as a junkie, he is never as good of a character as if he would be if he was as wise or constructive as Sam Etic or John Keating, for instance. While realistic and authentic, the story seems empty, and the "social issue" subplot revolving around African-American drug dealers didn't save it, either.


Thursday, January 17, 2019

Make Way for Tomorrow

Make Way for Tomorrow; drama, USA, 1937; D: Leo McCarey, S: Beulah Bondi, Victor Moore, Thomas Mitchell, Fay Bainter

During dinner, Barkley and Lucy Cooper, a retired couple in their 60s, announce that they lost their home to the bank due to too high financial costs. Their five grown ups children are in a quandary: none of them is willing to accommodate their parents, since each of them is raising their own family. Lucy is sent to live in a small room in the New York apartment of her son George, while Barkley goes to the rural area, in the home of daughter Cora. Lucy seems to be a burden to George's wife Anita and teenage daughter Rhoda. Barkley tries to find a job to regain an own home, but catches a cold, which Cora uses as an excuse to try to send him to his other child, living in warm California. Before departing for California, Barkley spends a few hours with Lucy together, who is being sent to a retirement home.

Legend has it that when he received the best director Oscar for "The Awful Truth", Leo McCarey allegedly said: "Thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture", alluding to the ignored drama "Make Way for Tomorrow", which he directed that same year. While "Duck Soup" is McCarey's best achievement, "Make Way" is also a very interesting film, an unassuming, bitter and depressive drama about the lack of any perspective during old age, which observes how a retired couple is faced to accept that their lives became redundant to the society. Elderly care is not quite a "high concept" for a film, yet it courageously dares to tackle the unpleasant topic through a low key, simple narrative built on small nuances and subtle observations about human relations. In one of the most memorable sequences, Anita asks her 17-year old daughter Rhoda to take grandmother Lucy out of the apartment, since their friends want to play bridge in peace. Rhoda takes Lucy to a cinema, but then exits the theatre to go out on a date. Two hours later, Rhoda hurriedly returns to the cinema and asks a woman to give her a summary of the film. Rhoda then finds Lucy waiting for her outside, feigning she liked the movie, until grandmother tells Rhoda she saw her exiting her boyfriend's car. Another sad moment has one of Lucy's daughters agreeing to take Lucy at her home, but her husband is against the idea: "When we married, I didn't ask my mother to live with us, did I?" It is a slow burning tragedy watching Lucy and Barkley getting tossed left and right, as if they are a burden, and the movie itself seems to not know what the solution might be. However, McCarey directed the movie in a too monotone way at times, with a few 'rough' edges (why was it necessary for Lucy and Barkley to be separated? Wouldn't it have been far more constructive to have them stay together at a one of their kid's home?) and lack of inspiration, especially in the rather pointless last 20 minutes, though the main theme is so true and genuine one can forgive its flaws.


Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Head of State

Head of State; comedy, USA, 2003; D: Chris Rock, S: Chris Rock, Dylan Baker, Lynn Whitfield, Robin Givens, Tamala Jones, Nick Searcy, Bernie Mac, James Rebhorn

Washington, D.C. Alderman Mays Gilliam is surprised when his worst day in life—his girlfriend breaks up with him, his bicycle is run over, he is broke—is suddenly followed by his best day in life when he is chosen by the Party to run as the first African-American candidate for President of the US. Mays accepts and is given assistants Martin and Debra. However, Mays is unaware that he was chosen because Senator Arnot assumes the Party is going to lose anyway, since the polls indicate that their rival, Brian Lewis, has a 90% approval rate. Arnot thus hopes to gain minority sympathy when he will run for President himself at the next election. However, Mays, running with his brother as Vice President, surprisingly becomes more popular and wins the election, while also finding a new girlfriend, Lisa.

After Barack Obama was elected as the first African-American President in history, many film critics retroactively gained new interest in Chris Rock's comedy "Head of State" filmed five years earlier, which predicted and satirized the process of the said minority running for the White House. Surprisingly underrated, "Head of State" is a fun little film that owes 90% of its charm to Rock's comedic talent, and some of his jokes, delivered through wise-cracking one-liners, occasionally show his comedy potentials to the fullest ("Your mother's ass is so big that when she sits she is three ft taller!"; "America is the richest, most powerful country in the world! If America were a person, she would be a big titty woman!"). The sole sequence where the protagonist Mays hears he is chosen to run, already sets up the tone in a delicious way ("We want you to run for President." - "President of what?" - "Of the United States." - "Of what?" - "Of America." - "Which America...?" - "North!"). The idea of Mays as the unlikely hero works as a comedy, though not as a political satire since it never truly scratches into some more complex socio-economic or political layers of the situation at that time, nor is it that subversive to gain some new insights into the election system. Also, nobody of the other characters gets a chance to shine as much as Rock, which is especially noticeable in the pale, underwritten character of Lisa, Mays' love interest, or Bernie Mac's character, who delivers only one good gag in the entire film. While not as a great as "The Candidate", "Head of State" is still a good piece of entertainment which accidentally announced a new era in politics.


Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Three Men and a Baby

Three Men and a Baby; comedy, USA, 1987; D: Leonard Nimoy, S: Tom Selleck, Steve Guttenberg, Ted Danson, Michelle Blair, Lisa Blair, Margaret Colin, Celeste Holm

San Francisco. Peter, Michael and Jack are three friends living together in the same apartment. One day, Jack flies off to Turkey to star in a movie, but a producer tells him he will send him a "package" to the apartment, which will be picked up by the producer's associate. The next morning, Peter and Michael find a baby in front of their doorstep, with a note saying it is the child of one of Jack's girlfriend, Sylvia. Shocked, they have troubles feeding the infant and changing its diapers. When Jack returns, the trio finds out that the producer's "package" was actually heroin, which is claimed by two gangsters, but the trio manage to film the gangsters at a warehouse and hand them over to the police. When Sylvia shows up and wants to take over the baby, Peter, Michael and Jack persuade her to stay with them.

Following his unexpected "revival" with the "Star Trek" film series, actor Leonard Nimoy enjoyed a mini-"silver age" in the 80s and used it to direct a few films. One of these films surprisingly turned out to be the biggest commercial success of his career, "Three Men and a Baby", a remake of the '85 French comedy "Three Men and a Cradle", yet it is forgotten today even though it was the biggest hit at the American box office of 1987. A gentle, harmless, benign and innocent little film, this comedy doesn't offer any higher inspiration or versatility than the basic simple concept of three men having trouble having to take care of a baby, yet it is sweet and mildly fun. The opening scenes ignite interest, especially thanks to a snappy opening song, "Bad Boy" by the Miami Sound Machine, whereas the three main actors, Steve Guttenberg, Tom Selleck and Ted Danson, are charming, albeit underused, in the leading roles. A few good jokes grace the screen: when Peter, who dressed up in his fancy suit, hears from Michael that someone needs to change the baby's diaper again, he goes: "I'll give you a 1,000$ if you do it!" In another, Jack is seen performing a play at the theatre, until he walks towards the camera and turns, and it is revealed that the baby is strapped behind his back. The subplot involving some gangsters trying to find a package of drugs, which was given for a pick-up, is in stark clash with the rest of the storyline, as if the writers were afraid that the main story was too thin to carry the entire film, so they resort to this subplot, which is unnecessary. While it offers a too neat conclusion, the movie is surprising just for how good-natured and innocent it is.


Monday, January 14, 2019

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2; fantasy, UK / USA, 2011; D: David Yates, S: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, Michael Gambon, John Hurt, Jason Isaacs, Gary Oldman, Maggie Smith, David Thewlis, Julie Walters

The final showdown has begun: Harry Potter, Hermione and Ron begin a quest to find the last of Lord Voldemort's Horcruxes in order to kill him. Using the help of  goblin Griphook, they enter Lestrange's vault. They find the Horcrux, a cup, and escape on a flying dragon. They return to the Hogwarts school and banish Severus from it. They then prepare with the students and Professors for Voldemort's attack. After Voldemort kills his associate, Severus, Harry finds out that Severus was actually a double agent: Severus only killed Dumbledore to gain Voldemort's loyalty. Many years ago, Voldemort tried to kill Harry when the latter was a baby, but failed, and a part of Voldemort's soul merged with Harry. Accepting that Voldemort can only die if he himself dies, Harry decides to allow Voldemort to zap him. However, Harry wakes up and, in a final duel, kills Voldemort. 19 years later, Harry, Ron and Hermione escort their kids on a train to Hogwarts.

The 8th and final instalment of the "Harry Potter" franchise, "Deathly Hallows 2" is a proportionally worthy conclusion to the film series. Since it signals the maturing and growing up of the teenage protagonists, it is appropriately one of the darkest contributions in the series, almost without any humor, with a very raw, bleak finale about self-sacrifice for a higher cause and friendship. The characters were not given much room to shine, though, since Ron and Hermione almost act like extras for long parts of the storyline, whereas other side characters almost disappear after a minute (John Hurt and Warwick Davis, for instance). On the other hand, Ralph Fiennes and Alan Rickman are excellent, giving more charisma to their characters than it was actually in the script. While competent, the story seems rather routine and predictable (the good guys beats the bad guy at the end) and did not offer that many surprises, except for a twist involving Severus, yet it at least reduced the useless subplots to the minimum, avoiding 'fillers' from the previous films in order to advance the plot and bring it finally to a point. The dry, schematic ending bothers, since it seems strangely rushed, and lacks any sort of a cathartic charge that was intended. Nonetheless, director Peter Yates crafts a suspenseful, dynamic and energetic film, bringing the final chapter of the saga to a rather satisfying conclusion.


Sunday, January 13, 2019

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone; fantasy, UK / USA, 2001; D: Chris Columbus, S: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, Richard Griffiths, Richard Harris, Ian Hart, John Hurt, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith, Julie Walters, John Cleese

Wizard Dumbledore saved the infant Harry Potter from Lord Voldemort, who killed Potter's parents, and placed him to live at his relatives. On his 11th birthday, Harry is visited by the imposing Hagrid who reveals to him a secret: Harry is actually a wizard and is accepted to study magic at the Hogwarts Wizard school. Harry is dispatched to Hogwarts and fits in, while he also makes friends with kids Ron and Hermione. They stop a Trol in a school, whereas Harry gets a cloak of invisibility for Christmas. In a secret basement, Harry discovers that Professor Quirrell is evil, and and has Voldemort living on the back of his head, so Harry stops him in his intent to steal the philosopher's stone. Due to his courage, Harry is applauded.

The only film with which Chris Columbus topped his own "Home Alone" hit (though "Home Alone" is still his highest grossing film when adjusted for inflation and by the number of tickets sold), "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" kicked off a wildly popular eight-part film series which would span a whole decade, and is a good, though also at times inappropriately scary film for kids. Since this was the 1st "Harry Potter" film, Columbus set the tone for the remainder of the series, and his vision was followed by the other three directors. At times, it seems a somewhat exploitative flick intended to cash in on the popularity of the wizard and sorcery trends at the beginning of the 21st century: there isn't much humor here, whereas Harry Potter is too one-dimensional of a character, without much charm or self-consciousness, yet overall, the movie works. In spite of its running time of 150 minutes, its pace flows smoothly, without turning boring, and it has mystery: several good ideas involving a cloak of invisibility (only from the outside, while it looks like a normal cloak from inside of the person wearing it) or paintings that move, though the best part is the broomstick tournament at the stadium, a sort of football on flying broomsticks. It is a spectacular sequence, but the rest of the story is nowhere near as exciting. A few horror elements are puzzling, as if they intended to make a hybrid subgenre of a "horror for kids" (the idea of Voldemort growing out of the back of the Professor's head is dumb). The performances are all-great, from Daniel Radcliffe as the title hero up to Robbie Coltrane as the lovable "giant" Hagrid. "Harry Potter" has magic, yet it only transfers on to the viewers to a limited degree.


Saturday, January 12, 2019

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince; fantasy, UK / USA, 2009; D: David Yates, S: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Jim Broadbent, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, Warwick Davis, Maggie Smith, Timothy Spall, Robbie Coltrane, David Thewlis, Julie Walters

Harry Potter (16) boards a train from London to go the Hogwarts wizard school, which he attends with his friends Ron and Hermione. He also finds a book of spells by a certain "Half-Blood Prince". The headmaster of the school, Dumbledore, approaches Harry and tells him about the evil former student at Hogwarts, Tom Riddle, who later became their nemesis, Lord Voldemort. Harry manages to convince his Professor Slughorn to reveal a part of his memory when he talked with Riddle. This causes Dumbledore to transport himself and Harry to a cave where they destroy one of Voldemort's hidden Horcrux, which grant the villain strength. Upon returning, a student, Malfoy, was asigned by Voldemort to assassinate Dumbledore. He hesitates, and thus Severus assassinates Dumbledore instead. Severus is revealed to be the "Half-Blood Prince". Harry is shocked and left uncertain at what will happen next.

The 6th installment of the popular "Harry Potter" film series is just for fans: it is too narrow to truly ignite interest from other viewers or groups. The main problem is the thin story: it is an obvious filler which exists not because of inspiration, but because of commercial motives to "milk" the franchise for as much as possible, when in fact the only noteworthy event happens at the end (the death of an important character), anyway. But to get to that important part, the viewers have to pave their way through a routine, schematic, overlong storyline with artificial subplots which are irrelevant for the overall story arc. This should have been a 30 minute film, but was overstretched into a running time of two and a half hours. Luckily, unlike some of its predecessors, "Half-Blood Prince" at least has some measure, refusing to resort to shock scenes or moments of disgust. The characters are also underused and underwritten: the only charming moment is Ron's love relationship with a girl, Lavender, who mischievously puffs a "foggy" mirror and draws a heart sign for him during a train ride. Harry and Hermione are pale, in comparison. They lack true "magic" to seize the viewers interest. An occasional comical scene shows up to to liven up the grey mood (a student throwing up over Severus's feet, who tells him he now has a month worth of detention), but the movie needed more of them. Overall a solid film, yet it made the error of relying only on "empty walk" and empty dark mood, since all the character seem to just "sleep walk" through these elaborate set designs.


Friday, January 11, 2019

The Passionate Friends

The Passionate Friends; romance / drama, UK, 1949; D: David Lean, S: Ann Todd, Trevor Howard, Claude Rains

A British woman, Mary, travels in a plane to a hotel along the Swiss Alps. Unbeknownst to her, Steven accidentally also booked at the same hotel, next to her... Nine years ago, Steven and Mary were madly in love, and he proposed her, but she rejected him because she "wanted to belong to herself". Shortly after, Mary was married anyway, to Howard, a rich banker. However, passion ignites between Steven and Mary again, and they secretly met. Howard caught them when they were not on a planned theater visit. Mary then admitted her affection and asked Steven to leave from her life... Back in present, Mary and Steven meet at the hotel and go to spend some time on the mountains. Howard shows up, catches them again, and files for divorce. Upon seeing that Steven is now married to another woman, Mary decides to abandon him. However, Howard still wants the divorce. Mary intends to kill herself by jumping in front of a subway train, but is saved by Howard and them reconcile.

A sort of restructuring of his own previous film, "Brief Encounter", this love triangle between a married woman and another man she loves is a good, though not a great film from director David Lean. Two great sequences: in the first one, Mary feigns she is going to see a play at the theater with Steven, but her busy husband Howard is suspicious. He notices that she went off, but forgot to take the two tickets with her. Howard then goes to the theater himself and looks at the marked tickets, spotting just two empty seats, while the mood is brilliantly completed by sounds of laughter from the play in the background. As Mary returns, Howard invites Steven inside, and then asks them about the play, in a very tense and revealing questioning that unravels almost like a ticking time bomb, with the inevitable outcome. In the second one, Mary meets Steven again after nine years at her Swiss vacation, and he tells her he married in the meantime and had two kids. As they have a picnic on the mountain, Mary has a vision of that moment, that she asks him the same question, but imagines that he answered that he could "never marry anybody else" but her, instead, and that they kissed. While the movie flows elegantly and smoothly, the rest of its events never quite reach the high level of the said two emotional sequences. Lean explores their emotional states, but the whole thing doesn't quite seem genuine due to the dishonest, two-faced character of Mary (who claims she doesn't want to marry, but then marries a rich banker, anyway) and the tendency of the story to slow down almost to the point of a soap opera at times.


Thursday, January 10, 2019


Claymore; animated horror-fantasy series, Japan, 2007; D: Hiroyuki Tanaka, S: Houko Kuwashima, Aya Hisakawa, Hana Takeda, Hiroaki Hirata, Kikuko Inoue, Motoki Takagi, Koji Yusa

A continent on the level of the Middle ages. Youma, shapeshifting demons, often take the form of a human in a given village and then secretly kill people during the night to eat them. The Claymore are there to stop and kill the Youmas and protect the villages. The Claymores are all women, wearing huge swords, but are a hybrid of Youmas and humans, which gives them strength. One of them is Clare, ranked as the lowest in the team, no. 47, who saves a kid, Raki, from a Youma. Raki thus decides to follow her. A long time ago, as a kid, Clare was herself saved from a Youma by Claymore Teresa. But when Teresa attacked a rapist, she breached the Claymore rule which forbids them from harming humans. Claymore Priscilla was summoned and killed Teresa, but in the process, Priscilla mutated into a semi-Youma, an "Awakened Being". Several Claymores unite to fight against the super-strong Youmas in the North, led by Isley. A mutated Clare fights the mutated Priscilla, but spares her life when Raki appeals to her. Back to normal, Clare flees with Raki from her own Organization.

Even though it was very popular, horror-fantasy anime series "Claymore" is a tiny bit overrated: it starts off well, even mysterious, but with time just sinks into the waters of endless-routine action and battle sequences, which are very monotone after a while. The shapeshifting Youmas, who can take the perfect form of any human in a village, evokes the "chameleon" paranoia from Carpenter's "The Thing" (one memorable sequence has Clare attacking Raki's brother, only for the brother to reveal his true form and transform into a Youma, even adding how "his previous body is crying", as a side effect of still having some traces of affections for Raki; another has a Youma finding a perfect place to hide inside a church: to shapeshift into a corpse of a relic saint), yet it is quickly dropped for the story to focus on the inter-fighting between the Claymores themselves in the second half of the storyline. However, their "civil war" is not particularly satisfying nor as engaging as it was planned. The characters are grey and stiff, and another problems is that Claymores all look similar: all of them are pale, blond women, mostly with short hair, making it difficult to distinguish them all. The finale, where the Claymores are fighting against the "Awakened Beings" in the North, is cozily set in a winter village covered with snow, yet, as said, their battles become tiresome after a while. The series is often very brutal, with several splatter violence moments (in one episode, in a duel, Ophelia even slashes the legs of Clare, yet the latter is able to regenerate them back thanks to her powers; in another episode, a Youma uses its tongue to literally pierce the stomach of a Claymore woman), little of whom have a justification for such an extremist approach, except for to sustain the interest of the viewers, who probably started to realize there is only a limited amount of value to this anime.


Wednesday, January 9, 2019


Ant-Man; fantasy action, USA, 2015; D: Peyton Reed, S: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, Michael Peña, Tip "T.I." Harris, Anthony Mackie, Wood Harris, Judy Greer, David Dastmalchian 

Rehabilitation isn't a piece of cake: after being released from jail, Scott has problems finding a job. Worse still, his ex-wife refuses to allow him to see their daughter, Cassie, while her new boyfriend is a police officer. Upon breaking in into a top secret vault, Scott finds a strange suit, puts it on, and realizes it has the ability of shrinking him the size of an ant. He is quickly contacted by the suit's inventor, Dr. Pym, who wants Scott to train with his obedient ants. Their goal is to stop Pym's ex-partner, Darren, who wants to perfect the atom shrinking formula and sell it as a weapon to the shady Hydra organization. After a lot of misadventures, Scott manages to destroy Darren's headquarters and shrink Darren into molecular levels. Scott falls in love with Pym's daughter, Hope.

When the director Edgar Wright left the project, doubts were conjured up regarding the future of "Ant-Man". However, with Peyton Reed on board as the new director, the final result is a fun and entertaining superhero film with several moments of comedy, though still "standardized" to fit into the mold of Marvel's Cinematic Universe. It's "Oceans 11" meets "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids", and works surprisingly well—except for two disturbingly dark moments (the murder of Frank by shrinking him into a patch of blood; the lab experiment of trying to shrink a goat) which seem out of place, the whole rest of "Ant-Man" is cheerful, colorful, 'light' and optimistic, rehashing some old stereotypes, but giving them a few twists thanks to the refreshing humor. The sequence alone where Scott uses the suit to shrink the size of an insect for the first time, filmed in a wide lens to underline the sudden gigantic size of a bathtub, is expressionistic, whereas other ideas are also amusing, especially the one that ordinary ants are "recruited" to help, even by holding a cube of sugar for his cup of tea. Michael Douglas stands out the most in the role of Dr. Pym, giving weight to the story due to his charismatic performance. The finale is probably the highlight, conjuring up several ideas which almost turn the movie into a comedy (Scott escapes from his cuffs in a police car by putting his helm on and conveniently "out-shrinking" them; the insect light trap scene; Cassie watching the contrast between the "epic" fight of the shrunk Scott and Darren, but which is actually silly since they just throw some puny toy trains around her room). Despite created on Marvel's assembly line, "Ant-Man" has moments of inspiration and charm.